DENVER (AP) — Greg Holland still laments the save that slipped away last summer while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The situation: His kayak/canoe hybrid capsized on a North Carolina river, sending him into the water and a few of his high-priced fishing poles drifting away in the current. He just couldn’t hang on to them.
Holland’s been flawless in the saving-things department ever since.
In his first season back following elbow reconstructive surgery, the closer is 11 for 11 in save chances. He’s also helped the Colorado Rockies finish the first month of the season atop the NL West (16-10).
“The ball, for the most part, it’s been spinning true out of my hand,” said Holland, who’s allowed two runs in 12 innings while striking out 13. “As long as I’m doing my job and getting people out, that’s all I’m concerned with.”
His fastball is touching 96 mph again . His pitches are filled with extreme movement again. This version of Holland resembles the one that became a two-time All-Star with Kansas City, before he underwent surgery in October 2015 just as the Royals were rolling toward a World Series title.
He spent a year out of baseball — and without a team — as he went through rehab. But he’s not looking back, only thinking about arm angle, pitch location and getting the job done.
Holland’s 11 saves in April tied Brian Fuentes (May 2007) and Huston Street (June 2009) for the most in a month in team history. The dependability of the 31-year-old Holland has provided an instant shot in the arm to a once-maligned bullpen. Colorado’s relievers had a big league-worst 5.13 ERA last year and 28 blown saves.
Now, they’re holding opponents to a .229 batting average and boast an 8-0 mark in one-run games.
“We want to be a strength of the team,” reliever Adam Ottavino said. “We take that to heart.”
It’s been a trying road back for Holland, who became a free agent in December 2015 when Kansas City failed to offer a 2016 contract. There have been some moments where he wasn’t sure when he would see a big-league mound again.
“I don’t know if anxiety is the right word, but a little bit of doubt creeps in,” said Holland, who was taken by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2007 first-year player draft out of Western Carolina. “You have to play the waiting game.”
While he was away from baseball, he hung out with his wife and his young son, played some golf — once the elbow was up for it — and squeezed in some hunting and fishing. He has a whopper of a fishing tale, too: Losing his rods when his kayak/canoe went sideways through a current and sent him into the waist-deep water. His brother tried to paddle over to help and flipped as well.
“No one was hurt,” Holland said. “But me and my brother lost four rods — that was kind of (lousy).”
In early November at a workout, there were reports Holland was throwing in the vicinity of 89-91 mph. It was a considerable gap from his customary 96-mph heater.
That didn’t deter the Rockies, especially with pitching coach Steve Foster once serving as Holland’s coach in Kansas City and bullpen coach Darren Holmes living down the road from him in Asheville, North Carolina.
“Found out a lot about him, even before I shook his hand,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “The thing that stood out for me with this guy, and you find this in most great players … his preparation is top-notch.”
The Rockies officially signed Holland on Jan. 28. His fastball has rapidly picked up steam — from the 91 mph range in early March to 96 while earning his 11th save at Arizona on Saturday.
This could turn out to be quite a lucrative deal for him.
Holland is scheduled to make $6 million this year in a deal that includes plenty of incentives. The contract also has a $15 million conditional player option for 2018 that Holland could exercise if he has at least 50 pitching appearances or 30 games finished this year. If he fails to reach either of those, there would be a $10 million mutual option with a $1 million buyout if Holland declines to exercise it.
There’s also this: $100,000 for Comeback Player of the Year.
“Right now, this early in the season, I’m in a good spot,” Holland said. “I’m not worried about what I looked like two or three years ago. I’m worried about being the best version of me, right now, that I can be.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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